A postcard not only captures the thoughts of its sender, according to digital historian and Mason alumnus Trevor Owens, MA History ’09, but it also supplies a snapshot of the place and time it was dropped in the mailbox.
Owens is the author of Fairfax County, a history of the sprawling Northern Virginia locale told through graying postcards sent mostly during the first couple decades of the 20th century.
“They definitely had a special place,” Owens says of the postal keepsakes.
The book, which was published in 2010 by Arcadia Publishing, is filled with about 200 scanned postcard images of notable homes, buildings, military sites, and other historical places in Fairfax, home to Mason’s first campus. Some of the cards also contain the personal writings of the senders, giving more insight into what Fairfax was like at the turn of last century.
His personal favorite was an early 20th-century postcard showing a street in Herndon, a small town surrounded by Fairfax. In it, the sender “continued” the scene by drawing in other elements of the town that were likely relevant to him–or, perhaps it was foreshadowing of the growth that was to come to the area.
“The big story was watching (through the postcards) the Fairfax community transition from a retreat for people in Washington, D.C., to becoming a major commercial center in its own right,” Owens says.
A former employee of Mason’s Center for History and New Media who now works at the Library of Congress, Owens says his research interests lie in digging into an area’s past using unconventional means, hence the postcards. And his unique research techniques and subjects don’t stop there. He has written about the history of children’s books and is a contributing author to playthepast.org, a blog that examines video games and their place in cultural heritages.
With the advent of e-mail and text messages, Owens, who is a doctoral student at Mason, acknowledges postcards’ role in communication is diminishing. But, as long as there are travelers, he says, postcards may always have a future.
“When I visit a new place, I still send postcards back home,” he says, adding that he thinks others do the same. “So I don’t think they are going away completely.”
Click here to read some of Owens’ book.